Dempsey Bob, “Mosquito Mask,” 1989 alder and acrylic paint, 12” x 9” x 6” (private collection, photo by Rachel Topham Photography)
They settled in Port Edward, near Prince Rupert, B.C., where his father had found a job at a fish cannery. Bob recalls playing outdoors as a child. “We always played Cowboys and Indians, and no one wanted to be Indian because they always got killed. And we didn’t even realize we were all Indians! Now when I see those guys I used to play with, I say to them, ‘Remember when we were all cowboys?’”
When Bob was 10, his father died and the family moved to Prince Rupert, where he continued school. He like to draw and read, and his mother supported his art and taught him the stories of her people. But he recalls getting a poor grade from his high school art teacher because “I didn’t draw the way she wanted me to draw.” He told her he would not deny his heritage. “When I got that Order of Canada I thought, ‘that’s pretty good for a C-minus in art.’” Last year, Bob received further recognition, a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, one of Canada’s most prestigious honours for artists.
After high school, Bob worked various jobs and met his wife, Margaret, with whom he has a son and daughter. He studied in Prince Rupert with Freda Diesing, a key figure in the resurgence of Northwest Coast art and an important mentor for him. Later, he attended the former Gitanmaax School of Art in Hazelton, B.C., which offered training in carving. He went on to spend time in Alaska, where his people were from, and taught art there, while also learning more about his mother’s culture by studying Tlingit masks and poles.
A couple of significant events helped launch him. Around 1980, Bob was included in the The Legacy, a major touring exhibition organized by the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. It led to more opportunities. Another landmark came in 1989 when he had his first solo show at a commercial gallery. The day the show opened in Vancouver, the gallery sold all the work to American businessman George Gund, a major collector. “That was a turning point for me,” says Bob. “It established me.”
These days, his work is in the collections of many institutions in Canada and beyond, including the Smithsonian, the UBC Museum of Anthropology and the Royal British Columbia Museum. Bob works as a senior adviser at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace, which he helped found some 15 years ago. He enjoys mentoring a new generation, particularly his grandchildren. “Our way is, we don’t push it on them,” he says. “If they don’t want to, we can’t make them. But I try to get them just hanging around me and telling the stories and such. If they’re not exposed to it now, when will they be? But to us, your free will is sacred. My grandparents didn’t push me, but they told me stuff. Eventually I knew I had to do something.”